To quote a fellow chronic malcontent, “Please, please, please, let me get what I want.”
And what is that, exactly? In whiskey terms: it’s a single barrel, bottled without dilution or filtration. For those of us who don’t get to roam rickhouses using a whiskey thief to sample this or that barrel, being able to taste the liquid as close to the way it came out of the cask allows us to live that dream in a microcosmic way. There’s also the added bonus of potential “off-profile” barrels, those weird and wonderful oddities that take on aromas and flavors not typically associated with their respective distilleries.
I’m not alone in my preference for this format, based on the voracious hunger for this type of whiskey and the associated scarcity of such bottles when they do become available. Despite this clear demand (at least from our hyper-enthusiastic niche of the audience), widely available retail releases of barrel proof single barrels are rare among the large Kentucky bourbon distilleries. We get cask strength, and we get single barrels, but (outside of store picks) we seldom see the overlap of those two circles in the Venn diagram.
Running down the list: Jim Beam has the Jim Beam Single Barrel, diluted down to 95 proof (47.5% ABV), Booker’s small batch at barrel proof, and Baker’s Single Barrel at a standard 107 proof, but not a barrel proof single barrel expression.
From Buffalo Trace we’ve got Blanton’s single barrel releases, at a standard 93 proof (46.5%). Those fortunate to live overseas may find the Blanton’s Straight From the Barrel, though this is not a standard offering here in the U.S. (yet). There’s E.H. Taylor Single Barrel (bottled-in-bond at 100 proof) and E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof, which is a small batch. Sazerac sibling Barton 1792 gives us a Single Barrel, and a “Full Proof,” but not a full proof single barrel.
Heaven Hill offers us Henry McKenna Single Barrel, though this is at the stipulated Bottled-in-Bond strength of 100 proof (50% ABV). There’s also the Evan Williams Single Barrel, coming to us at the even lower strength of 86.6 proof (43.3% ABV). On the barrel proof side, both Elijah Craig and Larceny have entrants in the category. Though they’re solid quality products, they are once again presented in batch format.
Four Roses has the retail Single Barrel offering at a standard 100 proof (50% ABV). While store picks of the Single Barrel expression are bottled at full strength, these are increasingly difficult to lay hands on for those of us unable to constantly monitor social media for news of these releases.
Wild Turkey gives us Russell’s Reserve Single Barrels at a standard 55%, as well as a batched cask strength release in the form of Rare Breed. Only Single Cask Nation has been able to bottle undiluted single barrel Wild Turkey.
Brown-Forman pleased fans early this year when they announced that they’d be relaunching the Old Forester single barrel program to include a barrel strength option (in addition to 100 proof) to replace the prior 90 proof offering. I’ve yet to lay hands on one of the new format bottlings, but it’s right up toward the top of the shopping list.
I ruminated on all this as I pondered the subject of today’s review. This is partly because this distillery has always eschewed the single barrel format with a conviction bordering on religiosity. However, a recent thaw has resulted in green shoots of hope that good things could be in store. I’m speaking, of course, about Maker’s Mark.
After nearly seven decades of being essentially a single-product brand, 2010 saw the release of an innovative new finished bourbon. Dubbed “46,” this became the basis for the Maker’s Mark Private Select program (kindly refer to that review for a potted history of the distillery and brand).
My recent chat with Brian Haara about all things Maker’s turned up a few recurring themes: the distillery’s emphasis on consistency (resulting in policies of rickhouse rotation and batching), the relatively restrained portfolio (in terms of number of expressions therein), and their fans’ cravings for previously-unavailable styles of Maker’s including, naturally, a single barrel variant.
Another thing that continued to echo in my head was how the brand has fallen out of favor with the whiskey “cool kids.” The Insta-folks who accessorize their bourbon with sports cars and Rolexes and automatic weapons seem to studiously avoid Maker’s Mark in comparison with hysterically-hyped bottles from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and Weller. Could the release of a single barrel at full strength reinvigorate this brand?
Until parent company Jim Beam finds a way to Make Maker’s Fashionable Again™, we’ll be left enjoying the current range of whiskey from the distillery which is – just between us – consistently very good. Hoping to keep a streak of highly enjoyable whiskey going, today I’ll be sampling a recent batch of the Cask Strength expression.
Maker’s Cask Strength is bottled at 108 to 114 proof, given the barrel entry proof of 110 and the natural rises and falls that occur depending on temperature and humidity. The mash bill is the Maker’s standard 70% corn, 16% red winter wheat, 14% barley. This particular bottle is from is batch # 20-02, brought to us at 110.4 proof (55.2% ABV). Retail price for this is $40, but I picked up a bottle for $37.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength – Review
Color: Orange-hued copper.
On the nose: Immediately expressive, with a balanced but forceful mix of fruit and wood. On the fruit side, there is an exuberant cherry note as well as the piquant, oily aroma of orange peel. More sniffing reveals this is actually packed with citrus: key lime and grapefruit make appearances, as does a tart aroma of gooseberries. The wood is not a flabby vanilla overlay, but rather a tannic, sharp, yet sweet and well-integrated note of oak. With some time in the glass, this takes on spicy notes of anise as well as a mineralic nuance of limestone.
In the mouth: Starts with a reprise of the nose’s pert limestone note, as well as some elements of the astringent wood. This calms down as it moves towards the top of the tongue, where some creamily nutty flavors yield suddenly to the tannic oaky notes singing out once again. Before this lapses over into woody bitterness, though, there are the perfect balancing notes of citrus and stone fruit, as well as the light sweetness of confectioners’ sugar. A subtle, understated finish is marked by earthy flavors of dried tobacco leaf, some dry old leather, and a radiant heat, evidence of the higher bottling proof of this expression.
Outstanding bourbon, and even more so for the money, especially compared with the competition. This brings all the aromas, textures, and flavors that accompany the other full proof bottlings above, yet it sits on the shelves at a moderate discount to the SRP for those expressions, and a meaningful discount for the marked-up prices at which they’re more frequently found.
Going back to the initial conceit of this review: while this isn’t my platonic ideal, it offers excellent value for the money and has earned its place in my regular rotation of go-to bourbons. I’m happy to have found it, and just as happy to have found another rebuke to anyone who sleeps on Maker’s Mark.